Holy dip It is believed that a dip in the Pampa river frees a pilgrim from all sins. Photo: SK Mohan
Holy dip It is believed that a dip in the Pampa river frees a pilgrim from all sins. Photo: SK Mohan

Sabarimala, a Hindu pilgrimage centre located at Pathanamthitta in central Kerala, is in the midst of a debate around whether women of ‘menstruating age’ should be allowed inside the temple or not. The matter still hanging fire, another issue crops up. This one, however, is unlikely to have many opponents.

As per tradition, pilgrims throw their clothes into the Pampa river after they make the annual pilgrimage to the Sabarimala temple located atop a hill. This practice is polluting the river to a large extent as an estimated one million devotees come to the hill shrine during the main pilgrimage season which runs from November to January.

What is more appalling is the lack of effort on the parts of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), the Government of India, the forest department and the devotees to keep the holy river clean. TDB , an autonomous body, manages the Sabarimala shrine and other temples in central and southern Kerala.

Meanwhile, Art of Living, an NGO, has been regularly trying to keep the precincts of Sabarimala and the river clean.

It has been over a year since the volunteers of this organisation took up the cause of removing garbage from the depths of the river. And they are left with nothing but more garbage, which is being dumped into the river day by day.

“The volunteers were at the receiving end of the TDB,” says vice chairman of Pampa Cleaning Project for Art of Living, Vinod R Nair.

“We believe that the river must be as clean as the temple on the hill-top. Hence, we will keep on doing the work of removing the dumped clothes from the river until action is taken to curb such practices.”

Dumping of clothes and other items into the river is not the only reason for the high levels of pollution. A close look at the toilets near Sabarimala will reveal that the sewage is being flushed directly into the river. The stench is strong enough to knock out a weak and a tired devotee.

Without a shred of doubt, the TDB can be held responsible for this menace. The environmental engineer at the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) had in September 2015 sent a notice to the chairman of the TDB explaining the issues to be addressed before the start of the pilgrimage season in November.

The notice pointed out the unsatisfactory condition of the sewage treatment plant (STP) at Cheriyanavattom. This STP, a preliminary chemical treatment plant established more than a decade ago, was not working properly and needed urgent maintenance. The STP had to be immediately augmented with new 5 STPs.

“The capacity of the STP is not even one-third considering the sewage that flows into it. So, the sewage is partially treated and rest is flushed into the river,” said STP Supervisor, Sijan Thomas.

Adding to the woes is the new STP at the hill shrine which is still under construction. The project evaluation notice stated that the progress of construction was not satisfactory.

The notice also stressed upon the need to complete works such as tank cleaning, site clearance, equipment erections and electrification before 20 October 2015 so as to start stabilisation activities before 30 October 2015. However, the TDB failed to respond to the notice.

“We are preparing to take actions against the TDB. There have been talks with the government to take necessary action against all those responsible for this. But there is always a possibility of touching a raw nerve when it comes to the Board,” says Paulus Eapen, environmental engineer, SPCB.

It has been a tradition since centuries to take a dip in the holy river before undertaking an arduous trek upto the temple.

However, the river water has not only become unfit for drinking but also for bathing. Reports suggest that the presence of coliform bacteria in water is much beyond the permissible limit of 500/100ml.

So, it is quite evident how risky the river water is even for a dip, let alone for drinking.